Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko

I spend a lot of time “art surfing” the Internet, following click-trails that start maybe with a Google image search of a subject I’m researching and then end up somewhere totally different. One of those trails this weekend led me to the work of Ukrainian New Wave artist Igor Paneyko.

Paneyko was born on March 2, 1957, in the city of Stryi in the Lviv Oblast region of western Ukraine, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. From 1975 to 1981 he studied at the Lviv State Institute of Applied and Decorative Art (now the Lviv National Academy of Arts), then spent a year working in Khiva, Uzbekistan. He currently lives and works in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Hungarian border, in the region known as Transcarpathia.

Other than this general biographical information, I can find little else about the artist. An exhibition promo from 2012 suggests that he is a private person who’s “wary of publicity,” though he does exhibit his work. Using the Ukrainian spelling of his name, Игоря Панейка, yields more results than a search in English, but information is still sparse.

Many of Paneyko’s paintings are of visionary landscapes with floating, haloed figures. Candles, moons, and ladders (see Genesis 28:12) are often featured. Much of his work seems to me to carry on the legacy of Symbolism, a late nineteenth-century art movement that developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists sought to give form to the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and they emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity over realism, often addressing the themes of religious mysticism and death. Gustav Klimt and Odilon Redon are two of Symbolism’s greatest artists.

(Related post: “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”)

Below is a compilation of some of Paneyko’s paintings that I find particularly appealing. I don’t know the specs for any of them, besides the year of those that have it painted large enough on the canvas, but I’ve linked each of them to its online source.

These first five are, to me, visually stunning. Ground and sky are not discernible from each other but rather interpenetrate, creating sacred space and evoking wonder.

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^ From 2005, we have a woman with a candle standing in contrapposto and covered in multicolored roses. The thin gold band around her head suggests a halo, and the purple burst behind her an aureola. It appears that she has come to pay devotion to Christ, as a wayside crucifix, whose patibulum supports the candles of previous pilgrims, is planted in the background. In the center of the woman’s chest, a little red kernel is encircled with light, representing the love that’s set aglow by her encounter; her loins, too, bear this mark—a possible allusion to the erotic language used by medieval mystics to describe their union with Christ.

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^ Here a haloed woman—maybe an angel (are those wings behind her?)—carries a load of pears and apples. To the left is a rowboat with four other haloed figures, one of them a baby; to the right, a garden. Some associations that come to my mind are Eden, Flight to Egypt, ship of salvation, fruit of the Spirit.

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^ In this one, the focal point is the bottom left corner, where a yellow-green-blue crescent moon balances atop a patchwork mountain, and a row of nightcapped sheep saunters sleepily away. On the other side of the mountain a newspaper party hat floats over a cross-marked graveyard. Maybe it’s because we’ve just come out of Christmas, but I think of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth: the Judean hills alive and vibrant, having been touched by angel song; the shepherds’ charges seeking rest after the flurry of activity; and spreading a shadow over the celebration, the Massacre of the Innocents—Herod’s extermination of the town’s infant male population.   Continue reading “Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko”

Jesus as Ladder: Jyoti Sahi and Ralph Stanley in conversation with Genesis 28

Jyoti Sahi is a prolific artist who runs an art ashram in Silvepura Village outside Bangalore in southern India. His paintings are infused with Christian spirituality, often depicting biblical narratives set on Indian soil.

Lord as Ladder of Perfection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord as Ladder of Perfection, 2014. Oil on canvas.

Lord as Ladder of Perfection references Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10–22, wherein Jacob witnesses angels descending and ascending a cosmic ladder. This vision resurfaces in the New Testament, when heaven opens and angels are seen pressing in on the Son of Man (John 1:51), ministering to him in his passion and then heralding his resurrection.

By entwining Jesus in this ladder from Genesis, Sahi suggests that Jesus himself is our ladder—the One who connects earth to heaven, heaven to earth. By him, we can access God.

We are meant to identify with the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting, whose gender is deliberately ambiguous. In this figure you might see Jacob, or, as one friend pointed out to me, perhaps you see Mary Magdalene, who is often shown in art weeping at the foot of the cross and is traditionally understood to be the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and tears in Luke 7:37–38. Either way, we are invited into the painting by this bent body, invited to worship Christ.

(Related post: “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”)

The cosmic implications of Jesus’s mediating role are suggested in a few ways. First, Jesus’s left leg is lifted in the pose of Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), an embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. Nataraja’s dance destroys all obstacles on the path to liberation and prepares the universe for renewal, and here Jesus is grafted into that iconography. He dances, and the world is transformed.

Moreover, the four elements are present: earth, wind, fire, water. Earth forms the base of the painting, where the ladder, treelike, is rooted. Wind sweeps down in the form of a hamsa, a mythical swan-like bird, here signifying the Holy Spirit. Fire burns at the bottom right, a biblical symbol for cleansing and refining, and appears to be setting aflame a bush, a reminder for us to be attentive to God’s call, as Moses was. Straight down the center, water bursts forth from Christ’s side wound, a river of life that washes over the worshipper.

At the top, the ladder branches out and flowers.

Painted in 2014, Lord as Ladder of Perfection reminds me of the traditional hymn “Jacob’s Vision,” which likewise identifies the ladder of Jacob’s dream with the crucified Christ. I wrote about the hymn here—in particular, the beautiful cello-accompanied rendition sung by Ralph Stanley, who passed away on Thursday. I enjoy listening to it while I gaze at Sahi’s painting, as the two interpret each other.